Monday, December 4, 2006

I am a Cliche...

Over my time living with an scientist working on his PhD in biomedical engineering and working for a company whose entire MO is science and engineering, I have come to a conclusion about myself: I am a cliche. I am a woman who likes english literature and majored in it in college. I minored in creative writing and theater. Does it get more girly than that? Now I am a writer and my specialties are features and profiles. If I had to take another career path, it would have been teaching or psychology. So basically, I have always gravitated towards the arts and any profession considered traditonally "female."

Last week I had to write a story on women in science and engineering and the difficulties they face, primarily around the popular notion that a scientist is a man in a white lab coat. Even though there have been thousands of women scientists whose contributions have been numerous and plentiful, the image of the female scientist smiling over her work or winning her Nobel is still rare. In fact, when asked 50% of students in a freshman required science course could not name a single woman scientist. Not one. Not even Marie Curie. And while I probably fall more into the Barbie idea that "math is hard" and will not be winning a Nobel any time soon, I am still very bothered by this, particularly as I prepare to bring a female child into the world.

Our daughter could be anything as R is so fond of reminding me. Somehow I had assumed that she would be a little me and that she would enjoy mirror dancing, lipstick, shopping and musicals. I am not ashamed to admit that I have a very girly side. Once in a creative writing course, my professor asked us on the first day to talk about first impressions. We had to pick people in the class who we thought had most likely run a marathon, the person who had the most dogs, etc. Everyone thought I was the person with the most shoes. I think that encapsulates my personality. But anyone who gets to know me better also knows that there is no one more competitive. There are many things (running, hiking, biking, getting dirty) that I approach in a typically "masculine" way. I am also far less mushy about things like love and cuddling than even my husband. But still, when it comes down to it, I am pretty darn girly. And that is ok.

What if S is not like that? What if she is a little scientist who wants to get her PhD in molecular biology and who only likes hard rock (like her father) and who cares not for clothes (or G-d forbid, shoes)? Maybe R will relate more to her than I. The last thing I would want is to reinforce stereotypes or force my daughter into some pink princess corner. I want to nurture her talent and her interests wherever they might lead her. So it disturbs me when I hear that little girls are being turned away from science and math so early because they are not "girl subjects." Maybe I would have been a great scientist if I had seen more images of female scientists (my high school chemistry teacher is laughing pretty hard at that, I imagine). But how does one nurture something in their child that they have little to no understanding of themselves? I find science fascinating. I can read 8,000 word science articles in the New Yorker that I love, but the reality is: I never really got it myself. But what if S does? And what if she loves it?

I have heard so many parents say that no matter how many times you try to turn your female children onto trucks and your male children onto dolls, 9 out of 10 of those kids will end up gravitating towards the "gender specific" toy. But the last thing I want to do is limit my child and I find it hard to believe that there are "gender specific" subjects in school. That has to be a social construct? So how does one manage to raise a child whose interests are balanced and true when they themselves are so skewed in one direction?

I had an appointment with the midwife today. It was good. I really like her, she is so reassuring. The baby is still head down and everything looks ok. She has assured me that the exruciating pains that wake me up screaming at least 2x a night (poor R) are common, if not normal. How weird. I am feeling her move now. See this is why I am glad I don't get science: to me all of this seems like a miracle.


Mackenzie said...

But that's what is so exciting about all of this: she will be what she is and she will follow her interests with all her little hearts' enthusiasm and it will just...happen. Happen the way it did when I started writing books and stories at age 6 and "launched" a newspaper in my 4th grade class and got mad because they wouldn't let me have a 4th grade newspaper gossip column! She will have her passions, and all you and Rob need to do is encourage them and tell her not to give up.

Anonymous said...

A cynical note from a female scientist who somehow ended up here:

What will determine what interests your female child has, will be her father. My father treated me equally, fought for me, and allowed me to not get discouraged enough to end up where I am today. Make no mistake about it, the world has harsh treatment for a woman who dares to step outside her 'place'.

Your husband apparently likes you for being Barbie. Which is fine, but chances are that he will want your kid to be Barbie too. So if you want your child to have all the options, work on your husband and determine his real attitude.

Because I have to tell you, male scientists only marry two types of women: traditional Barbie, or female scientists, the latter being a minority choice. And it generally reflects their deeper thoughts about women and their roles.

Good for you for being open to the idea that your child could be different from you. But consider my words, your husband's influence is more powerful than yours if she chooses to leave the traditional female fold.